ZAPPA movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

ZAPPA movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, Bunk Gardner, Ruth Underwood, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Pamela Des Barres
Director: Alex Winter
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: November 27, 2020

ZAPPA, as its title suggests, is a documentary about the late rocker/composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993). There is something valiant about the way writer/director Alex Winter has assembled a mass of archival footage, integrated it with new interviews, set the mood with unrelated but thematically relevant clips, and gotten it into coherent form.

ZAPPA isn’t one of those documentaries where we are primed for blinding new revelations, or even explanations of how something seemingly inexplicable happened. Instead, it’s a completist’s view of one man’s life and work. Winter’s diligence, applied to Zappa’s trippiness, makes for an experience that is shot through with weirdness and humor, yet is ultimately serious.

The film moves around in time, starting in the Czech Republic in 1991, with Zappa’s last recorded guitar performances (although not his last public performances altogether). Zappa has been invited to play at this celebration of the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region. The extreme popularity of Zappa, as opposed to other rockers, in Czechoslovakia is explained later.

We move forward in time to televised news reports on Zappa’s death, citing controversial lyrics, broken-up concerts and record banning, along with the fact that his wife, Gail Zappa, and four children were with him when he died.

Then we go back to Zappa talking about his early life, with accompanying photos and footage, moving steadily forward through the Mothers of Invention, classical compositions, the surprise hit “Valley Girl,” Zappa tangling with censorship, and much more.

Winter sometimes uses bits of ‘50s sci-fi movies, and Claymation (which we see Zappa employ in his own work) for cinematic punctuation, and he does quick acid-horror-flashback video collages. These serve alternately playful and mood-setting purposes.

However, the filmmaker avoids voiceover narration unless it comes from an existing interview. Likewise, there are very few super-titles, except to establish identities, dates, and places.

ZAPPA, as we might expect, has a lot of people expressing admiration for the man’s artistry, discipline, multi-talented accomplishments, and perfectionism. Even so, we get a sense from many interviews that perhaps he wasn’t the most enjoyable collaborator or boss.

Although Zappa’s wife Gail (who passed away in 2015) clearly adores him, Zappa seems to have been a pretty awful husband for a while, even by ‘60s rock star standards. By his own account, not only did he come home from performing tours with the clap, he made his wife go get his penicillin pills for him.

But people who loved Zappa when they first worked with him clearly love him still. Interviews with musicians Bunk Gardner, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, and especially Ruth Underwood show that deep emotions remain, decades after Zappa’s death.

There are lots of intriguing specifics here. Still, ZAPPA seems mainly aimed at those who are already fans. We get more rawness from those around Zappa than from the man himself, because by all appearances, he put his feelings primarily into his work, not his interviews. It’s a conscientious examination of a life, and those who wanted to know more are likely to find it here, but those who weren’t curious in the first place probably won’t be inspired to do further research.

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